It was not too long ago when Mt. Laurel Football had an average of about 150 kids from ages 5 to 14 come out to play each fall.
In recent years, however, the numbers decreased dramatically. In 2014, the number of players hit a new low when just 69 kids took the field.
This year, Mt. Laurel Football has made a comeback with a new board, new energy and a new philosophy. And with the changes came a surge of new players at a time when many organizations in South Jersey are struggling to get kids to play football.
Mt. Laurel Football opened practices for the fall season on Aug. 11 with about 115 players, a huge increase of nearly 50 kids from the previous season.
The program’s resurgence is due in large part to the leadership of a new volunteer board this year. After struggling to get through the 2014 season, the board got to work right after the season’s conclusion to figure out how they could get kids back on the gridiron.
“The year prior, there were a lot of concussion stories in the paper,” Mt. Laurel Football president Robert Monaco said. “What also happened is we changed leagues to be in a more competitive league, where we were traveling more. We were also a little harder on practices, so it trickled down to the kids.”
One of the biggest issues was safety. Monaco said concussions have caused the number of kids playing football to decline in all of the surrounding communities, not just Mt. Laurel.
“We communicate a lot with Marlton and Medford,” he said. “Across the board, the numbers have definitely declined.”
To ease parents’ safety concerns, the board organized more clinics for both players and parents, including a Mom Football 101 event in February. The message to parents was the coaches were going to teach kids to play football in a safe way.
“We did more coaches training, with the Heads Up initiative,” Monaco said. “All of our coaches are taught to tackle properly so you don’t have as much of a risk of a concussion.”
The other challenge Mt. Laurel Football faced was bringing kids back who had been leaving the organization due to some changes. Mt. Laurel had switched a few years ago from the South Jersey Independent Youth Football Association to the South Jersey Elite Invitational Youth Football League so it could play more competitive programs. The switch caused issues with some parents who didn’t like the longer travel times and some kids who weren’t enjoying the longer and harder practices.
For 2015, the board decided to switch back to the South Jersey Independent Youth Football Association. Neighboring programs Marlton and Medford also made the switch.
“We joined as kind of a pact, because we all have the same philosophy,” Monaco said.
The organization also made practices three days a week instead of four, and changed its overall philosophy. This year, the organization is adopting the Lenape High School uniform colors for the first time to draw the connection with the high school program.
“We want to teach the kids, we want to teach them sportsmanship,” Monaco said. “The goal is to teach them at each level.”
Coaches at each age level were chosen early this year. Monaco, who coaches the youngest age level, 5 and 6 year olds, said the coaches played a big part in recruiting Mt. Laurel’s youth to come out for football.
“We did a lot more community awareness,” Monaco said. “We empowered the coaches. We set coaches early and said ‘if you want to coach, you need to get these kids and parents to come to these meetings.’”
The organization came up with ways to bring in new players. One was a referral program where if a returning player brought a new player to registration, he could receive Football Bucks, or money to use at the concession stand.
Monaco also gives a lot of credit to the parents who wanted to keep the program going strong.
“The support from the parents in the regrowth is unbelievable,” Monaco said. “I have to thank them for their support.”
Monaco said because of the safety concerns revolving around football and other factors in the world of youth sports, it will be tough for Mt. Laurel Football to have 150 kids come out as in years past. However, increasing the enrollment from a mere 69 kids to 115 this year was a huge accomplishment. Monaco also feels the number of players is sustainable.
“Our new goal should be 110,” he said. “It will at least (give) one team through each age bracket. I think that’s a realistic number.”